Aqib has spent decades looking after the President’s carriage

On Wednesday, when President Pranab Mukherjee rides out to witness the ‘Beating Retreat’ ceremony on Rajpath in the horse-drawn carriage known as the “President’s Coach,” there will be one man intently observing every turn of wheel.

Mohd. Aqib, a master craftsman who has spent decades looking after the six-horse carriage, has been working relentlessly for days now to get the carriage ready for the President.

Familiar with every part, he knows how to clean and maintain the handcrafted leather seats and how to add shine to the gold inlay work on the wheels. The red velvet of the mounting steps has to be just right and the canopy has to open with a single tug of the hooks.

“Just as doctors read the pulse, I can feel the veins of this wood and metal carriage. For years now I have been maintaining this coach… ,” he says.

There is a team of skilled workers to help the octogenarian, but Mohd. Aqib will not trust anyone. He oversees the work with hawkish vigil and, from the repository of his memory, recalls the tiniest of detail.

Armyman to the core

“I retired from the Army in 2001, but my association with it continues and I get to work on the carriages in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. I am still an obedient solider of the army and whenever they need me I will be present. My children sometimes worry for me, but I tell them, a soldier never says no,” he laughs.

 When not working on the carriages in the President’s Estate, Mohd. Aquib’s skills take him across the country to places where carriages once owned by the Maharajas await repair and restoration. “I am responsible for looking after the buggies of several royal families, including that of Vasundhara Raje, some of these carriages have been presented to the Army,” he says.

 Having worked his magic on some of the oldest and decrepit carriages, Mohd. Aqib can build a gleaming new coach in as little as three months. “My first restoration work was the carriage of the Nawab of Aligarh. He wanted me to restore the wagon so that it could be presented to the Army; he was particular that it should not be disrespected after he was gone.”

 “The Maharajas and even the British officers were very particular about their carriages. They would not hesitate to spend large sums of money. The Maharaja of Patiala got a carriage made with 10 kg of silver in Paris and presented it to his daughter who was married into the Kapurthala royal clan. The coach used by the President was made from raw material procured from London and great attention was paid to ensure that it was not just beautiful, but comfortable as well. It is a rare coach with low steps for allowing women to climb in without having to raise their feet too high,” he says.

Buggy-making and maintenance is a dying art he says. Even though he is among the very few who have mastered the skill, Mohd. Aqib says he feels awkward negotiating a fee.

“I do it out of a sense of love and duty. It is not a trade…,” he says wiping away specks of dust from the wheels of the President’s Coach, which will head outside Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first time in two decades on Wednesday.

Owing to security concerns, the carriage is limited to use only in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.